The HyperTexts

Early Poems: The Best Juvenilia by Poets
The Best Poems by Child Poets and Teenage Poets


Our Definition of Juvenilia: In classical antiquity, the Juvenalia, or Ludi Juvenales, were games instituted by the Roman Emperor Nero in 59 AD to commemorate his first shaving of his beard at age 21. For our purposes, we will define "juvenilia" as works by human beings in their early twenties, or younger. Our focus is on poetry. What follows are the best early poems that I have come across, to date, plus a few that I have published myself over the last 20 years, as founder and chief editor of The HyperTexts.

Famous juvenile writers include Jane Austen, Elizabeth Barrett (Browning), Anne Bronte, Charlotte Bronte, Emily Bronte, Robert Burns, George Gordon (Lord Byron), Lewis Carroll, Thomas Chatterton, John Clare, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Congreve, Abraham Cowley, William Cowper, e. e. cummings, Digby Dolben, John Dryden, Arthur Henry Hallam, Felicia Hemans, Leigh Hunt, John Keats, John Milton, Thomas Moore, Edgar Allan Poe, Alexander Pope, Christina Rossetti, Robert Southey, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Alfred Tennyson (Lord Tennyson) and William Wordsworth.

It bears mentioning, I believe, that many of the juvenile poets above―indeed, most of them―may be deemed Romantics. Furthermore, all the poets I personally consider to be the best poets of the Romantic era―William Blake, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Thomas Chatterton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth―wrote publishable poems as youths.

Juvenilia Timeline/Ageline of Famous Poets and Writers


Marjory Fleming learned to read at age threepreferring adult booksand died at age eight; Robert Louis Stevenson called her "the noblest work of God."
Mattie Stepanek wrote his first poem at age three and published six volumes of poetry called "Heartsongs" before dying at age thirteen.
Marshall Ball wrote his first poem, "Altogether Lovely," at age five despite being unable to speak or move his hands; he "wrote" by looking at alphabet blocks.
At age six, e. e. cummings wrote a poem for his father; by age eight he was writing poetry on a daily basis.
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote "Verses on a Cat" at age eight.
Around age ten, Thomas Chatterton wrote his first published poem, "On the Last Epiphany, or, Christ Coming to Judgment."
At age ten, Alfred Tennyson was writing "hundreds and hundreds of lines in regular Popeian metre." 
Helen Keller, despite being blind, deaf and unable to speak until age six, wrote a short story, "The Frost King," that was published by age eleven.
Oscar Wilde may have begun writing "Requiescat," his wonderful elegy to his sister Isola, around age twelve; he published a number of poems in his teens.
Alexander Pope wrote his poem "Ode to Solitude" at age twelve.
Anne Frank started her famous diary at age thirteen.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge started writing his monody to Thomas Chatterton at age thirteen.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published his first poem in the Portland Gazette at age thirteen, "The Battle of Lovell's Pond."
William Cullen Bryant had a satirical poem "The Embargo" published at age thirteen.
Lord Byron had poems written at age fourteen published in Fugitive Pieces, but the book was recalled and burned because some of the poems were too "hot"!
Edgar Allan Poe is writing poems to woo girls at age fourteen; he writes "To Helen" around age fifteen after being inspired by the slender, graceful figure of a friend's mother!

Stephen Crane wrote the short story "Uncle Jake and the Bell Handle" at age fourteen.
Arthur Rimbaud was published at age fifteen; he retired from writing at age nineteen to become a soldier and smuggler!
Robert Burns, generally considered to be the greatest of the Scottish bards, wrote a love poem at age fifteen.
According to Thomas Seccombe, William Blake's "How Sweet I Roamed" was written around age fifteen.
W. H. Auden began writing poems at age fifteen.
Philip Larkin began writing poems around the same age, and Auden was one of his early influences!
S. E. Hinton wrote her first book at age fifteen and published her best-selling novel The Outsiders at age eighteen.
Alfred Tennyson and his two elder brothers had a book of poems published when he was seventeen.
Mary Shelley, the wife of Percy Bysshe Shelley, began work on her famous gothic horror novel Frankenstein at age eighteen.

NOTE: In the list above the term "first poem" means the first poem that we are aware of, which is not necessarily the first poem written. The first poem of mine that I have in my possession dates to when I was fourteen years old. But I remember writing a small number of poems at much younger ages: some as school assignments, others as larks. However, I didn't keep the poems and can't remember anything about them, except that one may have been about ants, a hill, or an anthill. So for all practical purposes, my career as a poet begins with the first "serious" poems that I can produce. And I was dead serious about becoming a poet by age fifteen. (Whether I succeeded may still be open to debate, but I'm working on it!)―Michael R. Burch

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A Song

by Digby Mackworth Dolben

Digby Dolben (1848-1867) died at age nineteen, so all his poems were written in his teens. While he has been largely if not completely forgotten, a book of his poems was edited and published by Robert Bridges, an English poet laureate, so his poetry fortunately survives. In my opinion, Digby Dolben is a poet who deserves to be read. The poem below is one shining example.

The world is young today:
Forget the gods are old,
Forget the years of gold
When all the months were May.

A little flower of Love
Is ours, without a root,
Without the end of fruit,
Yet – take the scent thereof.

There may be hope above,
There may be rest beneath;
We see them not, but Death
Is palpable – and Love.

For a brief bio of Digby Dolben by Simon Edge, please click here: Digby Dolben Bio. To read more of his work please click The Best Poems of Digby Mackworth Dolben.

Song
by Alfred Tennyson

This poem was first printed in 1830, when Alfred Tennyson (1809-1892) was around twenty years old. From what I have been able to gather, the poem was written in the garden at the Old Rectory, Somersby, where his father was the rector. Tennyson and his two elder brothers had a book of poems published when Alfred was seventeen. This poem seems to have haunted Edgar Allan Poe, a fervent admirer of Tennyson's early poems.
 
1.
A Spirit haunts the year's last hours
Dwelling amid these yellowing bowers:
To himself he talks;
For at eventide, listening earnestly,
At his work you may hear him sob and sigh
In the walks;
Earthward he boweth the heavy stalks
Of the mouldering flowers:
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i' the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.

2.
The air is damp, and hush'd, and close,
As a sick man's room when he taketh repose
An hour before death;
My very heart faints and my whole soul grieves
At the moist rich smell of the rotting leaves,
And the breath
Of the fading edges of box beneath,
And the year's last rose.
Heavily hangs the broad sunflower
Over its grave i' the earth so chilly;
Heavily hangs the hollyhock,
Heavily hangs the tiger-lily.

Song from Ælla: Under the Willow Tree, or, Minstrel's Song
by Thomas Chatterton, age 17 or younger
Modernization/Translation by Michael R. Burch

O! sing unto my roundelay,
O! drop the briny tear with me,
Dance no more at holy-day,
Like a running river be:
      My love is dead,
     Gone to his death-bed
All under the willow-tree.

Black his crown as the winter night,
White his flesh as the summer snow
Red his face as the morning light,
Cold he lies in the grave below:
     My love is dead,   
    Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.           

Sweet his tongue as the throstle's note,
Quick in dance as thought can be,                       
Deft his tabor, cudgel stout;
O! he lies by the willow-tree!
     My love is dead,   
    Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.           

Hark! the raven flaps his wing
In the briar'd dell below;
Hark! the death-owl loud doth sing
To the nightmares, as they go:
      My love is dead,   
     Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree. 

See! the white moon shines on high;
Whiter is my true-love's shroud:
Whiter than the morning sky,
Whiter than the evening cloud:
      My love is dead,   
      Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.     

Here upon my true-love's grave      
Shall the barren flowers be laid;
Not one holy saint to save
All the coldness of a maid:
      My love is dead,   
      Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.   

With my hands I'll frame the briars
Round his holy corpse to grow:
Elf and fairy, light your fires,
Here my body, stilled, shall go:    
      My love is dead,   
      Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.

Come, with acorn-cup and thorn,
Drain my heartès blood away;
Life and all its good I scorn,
Dance by night, or feast by day:
       My love is dead,   
      Gone to his death-bed           
All under the willow-tree.           

Water witches, crowned with plaits,
Bear me to your lethal tide. 
I die; I come; my true love waits. 
Thus the damsel spoke, and died.  

The song above is, in my opinion, competitive with Shakespeare's songs in his plays, and may be the best of Thomas Chatterton's so-called "Rowley" poems. It seems rather obvious that this song was written in modern English, then "backdated." One wonders whether Chatterton wrote it in response to Shakespeare's "Under the Greenwood Tree." The greenwood tree or evergreen is a symbol of immortality. The "weeping willow" is a symbol of sorrow, and the greatest human sorrow is that of mortality and the separations caused by death. If Chatterton wrote his song as a refutation of Shakespeare's, I think he did a damn good job. But it's a splendid song in its own right.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin in 1854. In 1867, Oscar Wilde's sister Isola died at age nine; he was twelve at the time. His elegy for Isola, "Requiescat," is surely one of the loveliest and most touching poems in the English language. According to poeticus.com, Wilde wrote the poem in his teens. If so it is certainly a contender for the mantle of the best poem by a teenage poet! Wilde attached the word "Avignon" to the poem; according to Victorian Literature: An Anthology, Wilde is believed to have visited Avignon in 1875 and to have finished the poem there. In any case, at age seventeen he was awarded a royal scholarship to read classics at Trinity College, Dublin, where he shared rooms with his older brother Willie Wilde (who also became a published poet). At Trinity, Oscar Wilde worked with his tutor, J. P. Mahaffy, on the latter's book Social Life in Greece. Mahaffy at one time boasted of having created Wilde; later, he named him "the only blot on my tutorship." Wilde became an established member of the University Philosophical Society: "the members' suggestion book for 1874 contains two pages of banter (sportingly) mocking Wilde's emergent aestheticism." Around that time Wilde presented a paper titled "Aesthetic Morality," which may be his first datable prose work. His first datable poem may be "Arona" which bears the timestamp July 10, 1875. "A Chorus of Cloud Maidens," Wilde’s earliest published poem, appeared in the Dublin University Magazine in November 1875, and was signed Oscar O’F. Wills Wilde. By 1876, Wilde had been published in literary magazines such as The Irish Monthly, Month, Charmides and Kottabos. (In the Month, Wilde was identified only by his unusual initials:  OFO’FWW. And ironically, while accepting the hedonistic Wilde, who lived up to his last name, the Jesuit magazine turned down one of its own, Father Gerard Manley Hopkins!) At Trinity, Wilde established himself as an outstanding student: he came first in his class in his first year, won a scholarship by competitive examination in his second, and then, in his finals, won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the University's highest academic award in Greek. He was encouraged to compete for a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, which he won easily, having already studied Greek for over nine years. In 1878, the year of his graduation, his poem "Ravenna" won the Newdigate Prize for the best English verse composition by an Oxford undergraduate. So either by his teens, or no later than his early twenties, Wilde was an accomplished poet and he would go on to become an important playwright, novelist and epigrammatist.

There’s also a description of Oscar in adulthood, recalling his sister Isola “dancing like a golden sunbeam about the house”. In Wilde’s poem Requiescat, written in memory of Isola, his love for her is palpable:


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